Sunday, March 7, 2010

Fiery Trials

So, I mentioned a post or two ago that I've been reading Elisabeth Elliot's A Chance to Die: the Life and Legacy of Amy Carmichael. Very slowly, I might add, but sometimes that's the best way. Gives one time to digest, you know?

Well, friends, I wish I could be completely transparent, but you'll know what I mean when I say that sometimes things are hard. Some things in life shake us to our very core.

As believers it's a precious place to be, really. It takes us to the feet of the King; it teaches us to prostrate ourselves before His throne, to cling to His promises, to cry out in fear and desperation, to pour out our frustration and bewilderment -- and then to receive His comfort and assurance. At times like this, suddenly Scripture comes to life. Passages that can be debated to death in the arcane discussions of seminary classrooms suddenly jump from the page and reach into the very soul to provide reassurance and courage, to bolster a flagging faith. They leap out of the book to lift our chin, to train our eyes on His with a firm reminder to not look at the wind and the waves, but only at His face. Look at Me and do not be afraid, He says.


But I get ahead of myself. Sometimes things are hard.

The other morning God lead me to read 1 Peter 4 where it says, "Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ's sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when His glory is revealed. … Therefore let those who suffer according to God's will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good."

This passage on that day was a balm to my agitated soul. Don't be surprised, He says! This is not outside of My will. It's a part of the plan, darlin', even if it looks a little messy for awhile. I've still got it under control.

I believe it was God who helped me connect what appears to be a messy and precarious situation in my life with Amy Carmichael's experience in India. I'm telling you, for her it was just one crisis after another and a lot of hard, grueling labor along the way. But her work there was surely God's will, wasn't it? In the comfortable old U. S. of A. we can easily forget that while sin definitely produces grief, godliness does not guarantee ease of experience. And that is okay. Suffering in God's will has a joy of its own as long as you can be confident that you really are in God's will, that you're doing exactly what He has asked you to do.

As it turns out, I'm happy to report that there is a plethora of Christian pop psychology skulking about that could be applied to my circumstance. Scads of books line the shelves in Christian bookstores with smiling authors looking out at us promising to help break the bondage, gain the blessing, draw healthy boundaries, deliver tough love, give healing a chance, experience emotionally healthy spirituality. I'm happy to report this because it gives me an opportunity, figuratively speaking, to spit on the whole stack of those books. Aren't I mean? Just nasty, I am.

I have an idea though. Let's play a game. Let's imagine Amy Carmichael talking to Hindu priests, not about the salvation of Jesus Christ, but about breaking the addiction cycle. Maybe that would have been more effective. Yes, yes, and let's picture her, rather than listening to God's step by step prompting to establish the Dohnavur orphanage and rescue thousands of little girls from temple prostitution, teaching them about the true Savior, instead teaching classes to those same girls on establishing healthy boundaries. And sewing. Let's write into her legacy the many personal retreats she could have taken, reprieves from the endless stream of dirty diapers especially during outbreaks of dysentery in the nursery, so she could attend seminars on emotionally healthy spirituality.

Aw, am I being unfair? All I know is that in my experience, "Blessed is the man who makes the Lord his trust, who does not turn to the proud, to those who go astray after a lie." (Psalm 40) Is it too bold to say that in the end much of that pop Christian psychology amounts to nothing more than going astray after a lie? We attempt to sidestep the rough road of discipleship by indulging and massaging, examining, proclaiming, and inflating ad nauseam our own egos. But there is no answer there. No hope, no peace, no purpose, no comfort. Only more anguish as we look inward rather than upward, frantically searching for a salve to relieve the torment of our souls, a salve only the person of Jesus can provide.

"You have multiplied, O Lord my God, Your wondrous deeds and Your thoughts toward us; none can compare with You. I will proclaim and tell of them, yet they are more than can be told." (Psalm 40) This is the joyous proclamation of one who has eschewed the pop psychology books, and instead clung to the person and promises of Jesus Christ. Only one who has been willing to look into His face, hold His gaze and agree to trust Him, to obey Him, to believe His promises, can utter those words.

I think I've been cruel here, and I'm sad as I reread this. I'm sad because there are women in my circle of acquaintance who devour these types of books. One woman in particular whom I love dearly (although I don't know her well) has attached herself to one of these books, even one that I mentioned above almost by its very title. She seems to believe this book is her salvation and must therefore be of great value to all her friends, so she is giving away copies of this book to everyone she knows. I don't know her well enough to understand what suffering she believes this book will alleviate, but it breaks my heart to imagine her reading this blog and being hurt because I've been unfeeling about her pain, derisive about her hope for an answer through this author.

But still. The answer will be found upward, not inward. Neither will it be found 'side-ward,' so to speak. I'll explain...

Last night I went with a friend to a church function. As I shuffled my way through the throng of 1200 people and chatted with the handful of people I knew, a sad sort of joy took residence in my heart because I realized that I was quite alone in my difficulty. No one could know, and cynically I recognized that no one would care if they did know. In the end, we Americans are pretty self-absorbed. We're happy to hear each other's troubles here and there occasionally, but if the trouble is deep, pervasive or just too hard, we'd rather not be drawn in. And if it's really too hard, we prefer to turn the whole problem around to be the victim's own fault somehow; somehow they brought it on themselves. Perversely, there's comfort in believing that. (Prudent use of the pronoun 'we' here, by the way. I include myself in this indictment.)

I exchanged pleasantries with one family there that we have known and been friends with for almost 25 years, since we were all single. We have kids of similar ages and for awhile the kids were friends. But our families have drifted apart over the years. Without saying too much, it's been a case of them just not wanting to know, not wanting to be involved. What does that mean about our "friendship?" What was it ever? It was a charade. Honestly, as long as their relationship with our family served them well, they were happy to maintain ties, but when we couldn't fit the paradigm anymore they moved on to families that could, that served their purposes better. It's ugly of me to think this way, and maybe I'm not being entirely fair. But it is hard for me to bump into them without feeling an ache. The superficial pleasantries we exchange now are at least not masquerading as anything more meaningful these days. How's that for comforting?

(Time out. Get a grip, girl! Holy ravioli, have you ever heard such a stinking load of self-pity? Puh-leeze (eye-roll). How much responsibility are we supposed to take for one another anyway? Grow up! They are busy raising a family, which you well know is an all-consuming task. Our burdens are not theirs; they've got burdens of their own that they're not asking us to help carry. So quit feeling sorry for yourself and get on with the task at hand.

Right. On the other hand, as friends who were there to see the avalanche begin its descent down the mountain toward us, it would just be nice to be asked every once in a while how we're doing.

It's still a stinking load of self-pity, I know.)

But you know where I'm going with this, don't you? There is One who will not abandon us when the going gets rough. And with that thought I floated through the night, all warm and fuzzy on the inside. He's the One with all the power and all the answers anyway. My soul can be at rest in the complete confidence that He understands all the intricacies, He guides the outcome, and He will hold my hand through the rough waters.

But now, thus says the LORD, your Creator, O Jacob,
And He who formed you, O Israel,
"Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name; you are Mine!
"When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
And through the rivers, they will not overflow you
When you walk through the fire, you will not be scorched,
Nor will the flame burn you.
"For I am the LORD your God,
The Holy One of Israel, your Savior;
I have given Egypt as your ransom,
Cush and Seba in your place.
"Since you are precious in My sight,
Since you are honored and I love you,
I will give other men in your place and other peoples in exchange for your life.
"Do not fear, for I am with you.

Isaiah 43:1-5ish

Can't say I understand that entire passage. Arcane seminarians can wrangle over Cush and Seba, Egypt as a ransom, the other peoples being exchanged for my life. The parts I do understand are good enough for me, and I drink them in like the deer pants for flowing streams. This Christian life will not be without fiery trials – do not be surprised! Amy Carmichael would have been stunned to imagine anyone thinking otherwise. But as long as my suffering is according to His will, I will entrust my soul to a faithful Creator in doing what is right.


  1. In everything, God is at work. Having a “strong” Christian network (like I do) can be just as dangerous as not having one. It also works reversely; not having fellowship can be just as beneficial as having fellowship. It is up to our Creator to decide when to give, and when to take away. I never asked for my sudden burst of Christian friends this year…God literally brought these people to me, knowing my need that I never would have known was there.

    Besides, is His prevalence and provision compromised by the absence of vibrant spiritual fellowship? Not at all! Rather, His prevalence and provision can be shown in absence.

    For the past month I have been fasting--did you know that? Nope, quite sure you didn't. Not like my fast is any secret, but I haven't had time to tell you!

    I have been fasting from my friend. The one who I will pay up to $40 a month to go see every weekend, spend 2 hours on the phone with every other day, and the one honored exception to my detachment from all social ties. You'd call that a pretty favored friend, wouldn't you?

    I wouldn't.

    I'd call it a God-substitute. I'd call it idolatry. I'd call it an entangled relationship, in which I look to one futile source to fill all the holes that God must rightly fill. I might, if you catch me in a particularly melodramatic state, even go so far as to call it downright sick.

    For a while during our relationship, God was all over our conversations. We prayed and had Bible studies for hours together, nearly every other day. By God working through her, she brought my relationship with God to a point I never could have once imagined.

    However, there is still plenty of room for the Devil to get a foothold on you, even in your spiritual relationships—the relationships that you feel are the most guarded and safe. God slowly started to leave our relationship, and the second He did, our relationship grew crooked, and ended us up in a terrible spot.

    Rather than praying, we simply discussed. Rather than coming to each other with our burdens, then calling on God for guidance, and praising Him for His sovereignty over our circumstances, we simply complained, and offered feeble words of encouragement. Rather than going to the Bible for truth, we relied on our faulty intellect.

    However, God is "the author and perfecter of [my] faith." (Hebrews 12:2). My relationship with God stagnated, and I became frustrated at the lack of growth, because I was looking within myself and to her (rather than calling on a divine power) to draw me to God. On many levels, the way I respond to her is in every way parallel to how I should be responding to God. Oh, how I wish I could say I am exaggerating!

    I do want to love Him. I do desire to have Him be intimate with my daily comings and goings, my thoughts, my life. It's a battle against the flesh and the will. My fleshly desires triumph, because I haven't been tempering them with the refining power that comes from abiding in the power of the Holy Spirit.

    I wanted to take a month and deny myself of her, to admit weakness to God, and to have my sacrifice serve as a sign that I need Him to burn away all other desires but Him.

    All this to say that whatever fellowship you have or don't have, or however redeeming the quality of your fellowship, without God at the center of your relationship, it is harmful and entangling.

  2. Wonderful insight! It sounds like God is certainly at work in your life and heart. I wish you the best!